Callum Paterson reckons no-one should be surprised that Hearts have been able to soar high on their return to the Ladbrokes Premiership.
A year on from escaping the second tier, the Jambos are celebrating a return to European competition after clinching third place.
It is a commendable achievement, especially given head coach Robbie Neilson was uncertain his team would even make the top six when they kicked off their campaign back in August.
But Paterson insists he was always confident Hearts – who will enter next season’s Europa League at the first qualifying round stage on 30 June – would find themselves mixing it with the big guns come the end of the season.
He said: “I’ve not been surprised at all. Our top-six goal was perhaps a tad on the safe side. We always felt we had the ability to achieve that. From there we set ourselves a target of a top-four spot and now we’re third, so we’ve done well to get there.
“So we’re now looking to finish the season on a high and then come back full of confidence for pre-season.”
Paterson is fit again after a shoulder injury cost him six weeks of the season.
He made his return off the bench in Hearts’ last fixture with Inverness a fortnight ago but is determined to finish the season strongly having already achieved his European objective.
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s trip to Motherwell, he said: “It was brilliant to get back against Inverness. Being out for such a long time and having to watch on from the sidelines was gutting, but I’m back training now and I’m feeling good.
“It’s always frustrating to be out, but you can only take it in your stride and hope that it makes you stronger. The recovery was hard but I’m looking to kick on now and get back in the team.
“Obviously it’s great to have secured Europe. That’s where I think the club should be looking to get every season. Finishing third is a massive achievement but we’ll still do our best to try and finish second.
“Motherwell are playing well but we’re fully focused on picking up as many points as we can going into the final games, so we’re going to Fir Park with the intent of getting all three points.”
Motherwell’s Connor Ripley would not rule out a return to Fir Park next season if Middlesbrough do not believe he is ready to push for their No 1 spot.
The goalkeeper has impressed and improved during his loan spell, helping Motherwell seal a top-six place. The 23-year-old’s ambition remains to follow in the footsteps of his father, Stuart Ripley, and become a first-team regular for Boro, but he appreciates he may have to go out on loan again next season.
When asked what lies ahead for him, Ripley said: “I don’t have a clue. Middlesbrough have said to me to go out on loan and get experience.
“They are pushing for the Premier League and they need an experienced goalkeeper. I’ve got games now and they can’t say I’m not experienced so that’s good for me.
“But if they don’t think I’m there yet then I will probably go back out on loan somewhere for another season and do my thing there, then hopefully get in the team for Middlesbrough.”
When asked whether he would return for another season under Mark McGhee, he added: “If he wants me back and everything is all right, and I don’t think there will be any other team, then of course I would, but preferably I would like to stay in England, closer to my family and my home really. But I don’t think I would turn Motherwell down.
“I have loved it, I really have. The club is amazing, the people that run it are amazing, the players and staff have all welcomed me here and I’ve learned a lot.
“I knew a bit about Motherwell because (former Middlesbrough team-mates) Scott McDonald and Stephen McManus were here, so if they were on the TV then I’d watch it. But I didn’t know the history and it’s a bigger club than I thought it was going to be, and I’m happy I got the chance to play for them.”